by John Lichfield
Friday, 3
December 2021
Explainer
15:00

Could France have its first female president next year?

Valérie Pécresse may pose a bigger threat to Macron than Éric Zemmour
by John Lichfield
Valérie Pécresse performed well in yesterday’s primary debate. Credit: Getty

The French centre-Right loves to surprise itself. It also has a history of shooting itself in the foot. 

The main centre-Right party Les Républicains, long the dominant force in the land, risks disintegration if it fails to unite and perform well in April’s presidential election.  

As the LR president Christian Jacob likes to say, the French centre-Right has to learn — unfortunate phrase — to “keep all the frogs in the same wheelbarrow” .

How did 113,000 LR members vote in the first round of the party’s primary yesterday? They jumped four ways, split evenly between four candidates.

The former EU Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, the overwhelming favourite a month ago, came third with 23.83% and was eliminated by 1,200 votes. Xavier Bertrand, the president of the northern French region Hauts-de-France, the most popular candidate with the wider French public, came just behind Barnier on 22.36%.

Top of the poll with 25.59% was Eric Ciotti, the hard-Right parliamentarian for Nice, the centre-Right candidate who is least popular (by far) with voters nationwide. Ciotti’s opinions on Islam, immigration and security (he doesn’t have opinions on much else) are similar to those of the far-Right candidates already in the presidential race, Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour.

And then in second place, and into tomorrows’ final round against Ciotti, came a woman who had largely been ignored by the punditry and commentariat (me included). 

Valérie Pécresse, 54, president of the greater Paris region, Ile- de-France, who scored 25%, is now the overwhelming favourite to be chosen as the Républicains candidate tomorrow afternoon. She has the backing of all the defeated candidates.

She would be the first woman to lead the political family of Charles de Gaulle, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy into a presidential election. If the centre-Right can unite behind her, she has a chance of taking one of the top two places in the first round of the election proper on 10 April.

If she reaches the run-off on 24 April, she would have a reasonable chance — more so than either Le Pen or Zemmour — of beating President Emmanuel Macron and becoming the first woman to lead France since the regent, Marie de Médicis in the early 17th century.

But that is a lot of “ifs”. Pécresse lacks fire but she is competent, calm and eloquent. She was the most impressive performer in the four televised debates held before this week’s centre-Right primary. Barnier spoiled his chances by coming over as grouchy and lacking in energy.

Pécresse is, however, detested by the harder-line members of the LR party who voted in droves this week for the red-meat opinions on security and Isam of Eric Ciotti. 

They call her “Valérie Traitresse” because she left the party when it swung to the Right in 2017 and only rejoined this autumn, just before the primary. They accuse her of being a “Macron-in-a-skirt”, pro-European, too consensual, allegedly soft on migration and crime.

There is, in truth, little difference between Pécresse and the many centre-Right politicians who deserted the LR for Macron’s government after his victory in 2017. Other centre-Right barons have thrown in their lot with the President in recent weeks, including Chistian Estrosi, the influential mayor of Nice (and implacable enemy of the local MP, Eric Ciotti).

If Pécresse wins tomorrow, as she should, the harder-line members and wider electorate of the LR will be faced with a choice between a) their gut convictions and b) supporting a candidate who could oust Macron. 

Many, judging by yesterday’s strong support for Ciotti, will stick with their convictions and shift to Zemmour or Le Pen. Valérie Pécresse — currently given only 8 to 10% of nationwide support in the first round proper — would then struggle to qualify for the run-off. 

Herding frogs, especially centre-Right frogs, is never easy.

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Patrick Fox
Patrick Fox
5 months ago

Well as we colloquially say in France the ineffable John Lichfield (JL) is “ indécrottable » the literal meaning would be that of someone who just can’t get rid of the s h . . sticking to oneself, in other words he will never be able to get rid of his lefty prejudices. By the way is partisan paper is riddled with mistakes, contradictions on Pécresse (in paragraph 9 she has a chance on 10 April but would struggle under the last paragraph) and inaccuracies ( must have gone to strong on the old Calvados in Normandy)when one follows the french media.

Interesting enough despite admitting he was wrong on his pronostics he persists in being sure of himself when it comes to judging Ciotti who if I read JL correctly is the hard right parliamentarian of the main centre right party. I don’t know where that leaves Marine Le Pen or Eric Zemmour. He also states that Ciotti has no ideas apart from that of security, Islam ….wrong again Ciotti is the only one who came with a manifesto on 17 November and it contained a large part on economical proposals, education and others and Ciotti was the only one saying who would be his prime minister (the former head of LR Laurent Wauquiez Head of the Rhône Alpes region thus with all the necessary experience- this is something important for a lot of french)and some key ministers. Further he never once deviated from his positions during the debates not like the others, to the point that even the main stream french press which is not ,to say the least, right wing oriented admitted he came on top.

What JL fails to say is that if Ciotti is elected as the LR candidate for running the presidential election, he is probably the only chance (even if it is slim) for LR, thanks to his stances on emigration and security ( which are unpalatable to JL even if Pécresse is no too far from Ciotti on those points but he obviously omitted to say that), to be able to siphon enough of the current supporters of Zemmour and Le Pen to his cause in order to pass the first round of the presidential elections in front of Zemmour and Le Pen allowing him to be present for the second round against Macron and winning, as Zemmour who is somewhat more rational than Le Pen would call his supporters to vote Ciotti. But of course the french right is unpredictable it was named “ la droite la plus bête du monde” for a good reason and Mitterand new what he was doing when he changed the election rules which split up the right by allowing the Front National to enter the arena knowing that the more traditional right like Chirac and the others said they would never enter into an alliance with the Front National. He must be laughing where ever he is now.

On the other hand if Pécresse runs (supported by Bertrand, Barnier and the caciques of the LR) she will have next to no chances to get pass the first round of the presidential because the supporters of Zemmour and Le Pen see no difference between her and Macron and despise them all ( not just the LR supporting Ciotti which I believe are intelligent enough to vote for her if they really want to rid themselves of Macron) I believe it is the last chance for the main stream
traditional french right LR to come back, if they miss themselves on that election well they will have once more proven that they are indeed “ la droite la plus bête du monde “ and JL will not have to flee this fascist France and that my friends would be a pity for us in France.

Peter Francis
Peter Francis
5 months ago
Reply to  Patrick Fox

Goodness knows why Unherd tagged the piece as an “Explainer”.

Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
5 months ago
Reply to  Patrick Fox

You should have written the article. As a US citizen I often find myself wishing we had a parliamentary system instead of always having only 2 choices in practical terms (bad and worse) and then I read a good comment like this describing the “game theory” type machinations described here and realize that parliamentary systems have issues too.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
5 months ago
Reply to  Patrick Fox

He is not from Stoke-on -Trent you know

Matt M
Matt M
5 months ago

Donnez moi un break!

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
5 months ago

If “Don’t underestimate Joe’s ability to F**k things up” Biden can be President USA, with a VP who openly gave Willy Brown sex for political advancement, then what can one expect of politics now? Trudeau and Boris? Idiot Clowns….I have no doubt the French voters could elect a person who would set the Nation back on its path to Greatness, but I know they won’t, they are just naturally contrary.

Patrick Fox
Patrick Fox
5 months ago

Well Pécresse is the official candidate of LR and she will not be in a position to ignore Ciotti who with 39% of the votes will weigh heavily in the presidential campaign and in any future government if by miracle she becomes president.He called his voters to support her. If she fails to take their views on board she will reduce her chances to pass the first round to confront Macron in the second even if she may glean some voters from Macron who wish to come back. As I said the supporters of Zemmour and LePen see not difference between her and Macron. Her campaign will therefore have to concentrate on the themes defended by Ciotti if she wants to convince the french people to vote for her as those themes, while obviously not palatable to JL,are the ones the french want answers to: immigration,security,sovereignty. That does not necessarily make them crypto fascists or populists as some like JL believe and want to make believe.

Last edited 5 months ago by Patrick Fox
JP Martin
JP Martin
5 months ago
Reply to  Patrick Fox

Based on conversations I have with friends of different political orientation, your account sounds correct. Macron and Pécresse are the Coca Light of politics. They are not anyone’s first choice.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
5 months ago

Please, France…ANYONE but Macron. S’il vous plaît.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
5 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Zemmour
‘Wheelbarrow full of frogs’ haha haaa Although I am afraid in UK it is a basket full of lemmings, and in USA a box of angry squirrels…. With such voters the chance of good government is about zero…

Aleksandra Kovacevic
Aleksandra Kovacevic
5 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I find myself repeating over and over again, ‘every nation has the leaders it deserves’. Us lemmings don’t want to engage with politics and educate ourselves, fine, we get Boris and we deserve him.
Those angry squirrels deserve Biden and drunk/incompetent Kamala too, I’m sure you’ve followed their election and seen the discussions.

JP Martin
JP Martin
5 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I understand this sentiment but, sadly, we have some even worse than Macron.

JP Martin
JP Martin
5 months ago

He starts with the true statement that the French right is skilled at self-sabotage. As for the rest, I don’t find these ramblings very useful as description, opinion, or analysis. LR made the compromise choice, but Pécresse lacks authenticity, she is not trusted by the base, and she does not inspire enthusiasm.

Last edited 5 months ago by JP Martin
Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
5 months ago

Plus ça change, …

willy Daglish
willy Daglish
5 months ago

Yet another Énarque! Le plus ça change….

George Knight
George Knight
5 months ago

I wouldn’t wish running France on anyone. The French seem to enjoy being in a permanent state of semi-revolt. Good luck to them all, but I hope that the mini Jupiter gets dumped as he is no friend of the UK.